No, The Fault in Our Stars Is Not Young-Adult Fiction’s Savior

In fact, the idea that the genre needs a savior is silly—and, some writers argue, sexist.
20th Century Fox

The Fault in Our Stars topped the box office this weekend with an estimated $48.2 million in ticket sales, which means the ongoing conversation surrounding young-adult fiction will only get more intense. The buzz around The Fault in Our Stars, particularly around the novel’s author, John Green, has been loud and, for the most part, extremely positive. Rightfully so: the film has pulled off a brilliant marketing campaign, and Green has worked tirelessly for years navigating the worlds of publishing and online video.

But at their core, the many articles and magazine cover spreads about Green and The Fault in Our Stars are at best incorrect, and at worst harmful. Several publications, including The New Yorker and TIME, have nicknamed him “The Teen Whisperer.” The Wall Street Journal has praised him for “ushering in a new golden era for contemporary, realistic, literary teen fiction, following more than a decade of dominance by books about young wizards, sparkly vampires and dystopia.” Buzzfeed has described Green’s legions of screaming teen girls, the predominant audience for both his written and online work. If the chatter is to be believed, Green has singlehandedly saved YA from extinction.

This notion is, of course, ridiculous, and much of the discourse stems from a misunderstanding of what YA means. Ruth Graham, writer of the much-discussed Slate piece “Against YA,” says that “there’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.” At its core, though, YA is just a bucket term used to describe stories that predominantly feature teenaged characters. Novels like The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are technically YA; even Pride and Prejudice is often shelved in the YA section of bookstores. If Graham’s beloved Brontë sisters wrote novels today, they would most likely be published by a YA imprint.

That’s not even to speak of modern YA, a rich genre dominated by female authors who write about everything from cyborg mechanics living in futuristic Beijing to female spies being tortured for information during World War II. Each of these stories is devoured by thousands of teenagers and adults every year, and treated with as much enthusiasm as The Fault in Our Stars. Yet most of them are often derided and largely ignored by the media.

YA authors are fighting back. New York Times bestselling author Ally Carter expressed frustration on Twitter last week: “Gonna have to stop reading articles that (rightfully) praise #Tfios, but then denigrate all other YA hits. Sadly, it's all the articles. Really, the overall tenor of ‘Finally, WORTHY books for girls’ is about to get me. I'm about to SNAP.” Fellow bestselling author Maureen Johnson agreed, venting that “the last few weeks has been so much joy for the good that is #tfios, but a lot of sadness too. I have to admit to one moment, where I'd read yet another takedown of all the good work of women writers where I said, ‘What's the point?’”

John Green's book deserves acclaim, regardless of his race or gender. But by choosing him to be the crown prince of YA, the entertainment industry has continued its cycle of promoting the work of white men as “real” work, and the work of women as “simple” or, in Graham’s words, “uniformly satisfying.” It’s a triple blow, being a (1) woman who writes primarily for (2) girls who are (3) teenagers. Three strikes, and you’re out of the mainstream narrative.

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Mary Ann Badavi is a writer and producer for AtlanticLIVE.

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